Discovering Discovery: LSO Children's Hospitals programme

LSO Discovery is the Orchestra's education and community programme, reaching over 60,000 people a year through a wide range of projects designed to encourage all ages and abilities to get involved with music. This series of blogs reveals more about what we do... 

We currently run two LSO Discovery projects in hospitals – one for children and one for older adults. Through these programmes, LSO musicians and workshop leaders can help to improve mood and wellbeing and create moments of serenity within an often distressing hospital environment through creative music-making. In this blog we explain our Children’s Hospitals programme and what it involves in more detail. 

Children's Hospitals

childrenshospjoost 500Each year LSO Discovery visits around 400 babies, children and young people aged 0–18 at Whipps Cross and Royal London Hospitals in East London. Many of these children suffer from chronic, life-threatening or terminal illnesses, with some having spent the majority of their lives in hospital. 

Children that have spent such a significant amount of time in hospital are faced with a long list of disadvantages. The LSO aims to address these, even if in a small way, by helping to build self-esteem; enabling the children to express their emotions through music; reducing anxiety and stress levels by encouraging creativity and fun to draw their focus away from their treatments and illness; reducing stress for family members by encouraging them to take part and teaching them how to use music to interact with their child; and enriching the lives of patients by bringing high quality music and creative activities to an often intimidating hospital environment.

The musicians and workshop leaders have a busy schedule, with visits taking place over the following wards:

  • General Children's Ward: visits to vulnerable children who cannot be moved from their wards, or who are isolated due to being susceptible to infection.
  • Neonatal Ward: visits to prematurely-born babies, ill infants, and their parents.
  • Gastroenterology and Oncology Ward: visits to children who are suffering from digestive diseases and cancer.
  • Retinoblastoma Drop-in Clinic: visits to children who are being treated for Retinoblastoma – a rare form of eye cancer which affects young children.

What do the sessions involve?

We use fun, exciting and creative music-making to give the children and their parents a brief respite from the experience of being in hospital. At each session a workshop leader and LSO musicians work together to respond to the children's mood and needs. 

In the Neonatal Ward we play soothing and uplifting music, and sing lullabies, nursery rhymes and other interactive songs to create a more relaxing environment for babies and parents. We encourage nurses to sing along too! We also run mother and baby groups in a sensory area with lights, projections and bubbles, where mothers are supported in singing to their babies to soothe them, a skill they can continue to use when they return home.

’I've seen that both parents and nursing staff find the soft music soothing and calming.’ Senior Neonatal Nurse

’All the beeping stops when you start singing because the babies stabilise. All the alarms just stop.’  Parent

On the Gastroenterology and Oncology Ward and at the Retinoblastoma Drop-in Clinic we use singing and musical storytelling with brightly coloured puppets, providing the children with shakers, drums and tambourines. On the General Children's Ward the children are given the opportunity to make suggestions and conduct dynamics, speed and style. 

At one recent session, a child peeked out from behind her hospital room door when she heard the music; at first she would not come out, but by the end of the session she was fully involved and didn't want the musicians to leave! Often the children are unhappy and crying when the musicians arrive, but once the instruments come out and the music starts the children are captivated, distracted from the distressing hospital environment, and a calming effect takes hold. Seeing this transformation is truly special.

’My daughter really enjoys the sessions – she finds being in hospital a stressful experience. The sessions make her forget and enjoy herself. My daughter has been in hospital for quite a period of time, and it’s nice to see her acting as a ‘normal’ two year old. The musicians are so lovely and really understanding. Thank you!’  Mother of young patient

Who runs the sessions?

The sessions are run by LSO workshop leaders and musicians with experience working alongside vulnerable patients and their parents. They understand the benefits that musical activity can bring to children, and help patients to engage with music, whether by listening, moving, experimenting with sounds, singing or playing instruments. 

’I feel honoured and privileged to be able to play my trombone to children and parents in hospital to allow them a few minutes of escape and respite from their pain, worries and concerns. Having been in this position before as a parent (my son was 9 weeks premature), I can relate to the many worried hours spent sitting in hospital feeling fairly useless, hoping for the situation to improve. I would have appreciated a diversion from my thoughts for even a few seconds. The parents love these little interludes and the children are allowed an opportunity to be creative. On many occasions it is the music that provokes a response in a way the nurses have been unable to achieve. This does say so much about music – music is a great healer.’  Paul Milner, LSO Principal Bass Trombone.

Vanessa King is an early years specialist and a workshop leader for some of the LSO's Children's Hospitals sessions. Vanessa highlights the positive emotional benefits that music brings to children undergoing intensive medical treatment: 

childrenshospking 500

'Together with LSO musicians, I visit Royal London with one simple aim: to improve the daily lives of ill children. 

My speciality is young children and babies. Hospitals are stressful environments; full stop. The psychological vulnerability that accompanies childhood only compounds a difficult situation. Our sessions are gentle, private and spontaneous – we take our cue from the children, each of whom is totally unique. We witness so many positive results: escapism from a frightening environment of noisy machines and adult conversations. Access to important, unrealised emotions. Catharsis. It's about expressing yourself without words, having a troubled mind nursed without medicine. 

And mums, dads and nurses feel the benefits too. Our sessions are a stabilising, hopeful force in a so often unstable, bleak environment. Finally, sound mental health is an irrefutable driver of physical recovery. It constantly amazes me that by doing comparatively little we can make such profound shifts.'

We also work with Health Play Specialists who are based in the hospitals and use their understanding of child development and therapeutic play to help children cope with any pain, anxiety or fear they might experience during their time in hospital. The Play Specialists are able to offer us advice about which patients are most in need on the day of a visit. In some cases there is only one Play Specialist per ward, making it difficult for them to interact with all the children, particularly those who are in isolation due to infection – we can address this gap in staffing through our visits.   

How are these sessions funded?

Did you know that the LSO is a charity? A large majority of LSO Discovery's work would not be possible without the support of trusts and foundations, and corporate and individual donors. LSO Children's Hospitals 2015/16 was generously supported by BBC Children in Need. We are currently fundraising to raise the money required for the Children’s Hospitals programme in 2016/17.  

If you are interested in supporting LSO Discovery projects, get in touch at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

One simple aim: to improve the daily lives of ill children.

The LSO Children's Hospitals programme provides children with a unique and positive experience, providing opportunities to build their self-esteem and planting the seeds of musical expression and creativity along with the confidence to use them, which will stay and grow with them into the future. 

These visits offer a rare and precious experience of music, helping the children to come to terms with an often distressing time in their lives, and is an opportunity that both the children and their families would not have otherwise.

Find out more about our hospital programme for older adults in partnership with Vital Arts.